Tough, lean and spare, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) was an epic swords and sandals picture coming fast on the heels of Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. Yet despite having its own careening version of a chariot race and the requisite legions of ornately costumed extras amidst spectacularly palatial locations, the tone is surprisingly somber. Much of the first half takes place in the dead of winter, and the performances seem pensive and cool, or manic and edgy. Anthony Mann, best known for his noirish westerns, suggests death through the autumnal season, the Roman legions marching through snowy fields and shadowy pine groves, and the candles and torches flickering ominously in dark rooms.
The oppressive mood gives depth and shading to the pomp and circumstance of ancient Rome, and an extended and potentially tiresome scene where the emperor (Alec Guinness) greets emissaries from every corner of his empire, each with different colorful flags, armor, and titles of honor, is tempered by the fact that the king of the world has a lingering pain in his lower abdomen (a close-up of the emperor’s trusted Greek adviser, Timonides (James Mason), has a gnawing, sweaty intensity, as if he is already imagining his master’s demise). Layers of snow or smoke drift over the widescreen images, obliterating any sense of David Lean’s epic cinema, and the score by Dimitri Tiomkin is frequently low-key. In many scenes, there is no score at all, but the uneasy absence of music in favor of wind or rustling leaves.
The plot in many ways resembles Gladiator, with a heroic tribune, Livius (Stephen Boyd)—fresh from his victories during the German war—selected by his beloved emperor to succeed him. Disgusted with jealousy, the emperor’s son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), falls into a kind of narcissistic death wish, wanting to plunge himself into suicidal battle against the barbarians. Senators and philosophers conspire to wipe out the already ill, rapidly fading emperor and plant Commodus on the throne. The hero and villain are surprisingly passive here, with instincts driving them to introspective dread or inward rage, and the story is driven not by generals and fighters, but by crafty thinkers—like Mel Ferrer as a blind political leader who smilingly volunteers to present the emperor with a poisoned apple.
There are battle scenes that don’t climax with victory cheers; before the moment of jubilation can occur, a general will turn and scold the handful of gladiators that behaved like cowards, quickly followed by a scene where he is casually pushing them off a bridge as punishment. If there is any levity to be found in the proceedings, it’s from the evil, self-centered Commodus. It’s an eccentric performance by Plummer, which dominates the film. He easily steals the show from Boyd’s wooden hero and the gorgeous Sophia Loren, who summons up sex appeal but little more as the love interest. From the moment Commodus appears, he seems loose, jangling around in his armor with hands flapping back and forth, and grinning so much it seems like he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s emotionally constipated and strangely dissatisfied.
Plummer twinkles with glee, clapping his hands and happily soaking up attention, and his charisma is so strong that he often gets his fellow actors to laugh with him. But it’s also because he’s just so weird. When he wears the golden laurel leafs on his head, they’re slightly crooked, and his monologues don’t follow the rhythm-and-flow of classically trained actors—his words pour out with stop-and-start cadences and are punctuated with nervy smiles. While The Sound of Music made Plummer a star, one sees this early performance and can imagine a career mirroring that of Christopher Walken (or maybe more like that of his daughter, Amanda Plummer). When Commodus says of his potential enemies, “I will destroy them,” it’s almost cheekily flippant, like a child knocking over castles in his sandbox. He’s offbeat, not in lockstep with the beautifully formal images and senatorial tone, and Mann seems very aware of the freaky energy he brings.
It would have been a different movie if Kirk Douglas or Charlton Heston played Boyd’s Livius (Heston by this point had enough of wearing a toga, and had just played El Cid for Mann only three years earlier), but I wonder if it would have been any better. Heston or Douglas, dominant alpha males, wouldn’t hesitate to seize the day, but Boyd is oddly deferential to Plummer. He’s less of a hero, and the movie doesn’t spark during his quiet romantic scenes with Loren. But this leaden quality adds to the mummified tone of the picture. At the midway point, when the sky turns bright blue, the costumes grow more colorful, and the villain achieves his goals, the tone is warmer and the orchestra more expressive and jubilant. That touch of irony makes The Fall of the Roman Empire feel modern, perhaps even more so than Gladiator, which is traditional, even conservative, in its values of family and self-reliance.
Gladiator actually has a very similar conclusion in terms of events, but the tone is quite different here, because even through Commodus is by this point a teeth-gnashing maniac (torching villages and staging crucifixions), his fate is tied to an empire ripe with potential. With his fall, the house of cards is doomed to collapse. The drawn out gladiatorial combat is surprisingly charged, not only because of its dynamic physicality, but also its surprising emotional depth. Again, even if the fight results in victory for the righteous, the implication of the film is that all fighting ultimately leads to a great failure. In most films, might makes right, without regard to the wisdom of diplomacy. Perhaps The Fall of the Roman Empire failed at the box office because that’s not the nature of the American spirit, where we want our good guys to punch out the bad guys, save the girl, and preserve the status quo. What it does sustain is a moral victory of sorts, suggesting we search our sense of compassion before we act.
Image/Sound/Extras: The Weinstein Company makes a big deal out of their limited collector’s edition gift of The Fall of the Roman Empire, having had some measure of success with their DVD release of the Charlton Heston/Anthony Mann epic El Cid. It is presented in the scope aspect ratio (anamorphic 2.35:1), and the print is restored in such a pristine manner the movie looks like it could’ve been made yesterday (except for some of the hokey dialogue, which is more earnest than today’s disaffected hokey dialogue). Likewise, audio quality is excellent and clear. The film-length commentary track features producer Samuel Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin, and they speak at great length about the heroism, social awareness, financial savvy, genius craftsmanship and, in general, all-around brilliant skills of Bronston, almost at the expense of discussing Anthony Mann, Sophia Loren, James Mason, and the rest of the talent. When they praise the cast and crew, it’s part of their complimenting the producer for assembling such a team. Even when discussing Alec Guinness, who scoffed at the tedious script, they say that George Lucas was surely inspired by this film when casting for Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
On disc two, a 30-minute making of documentary rehashes some stories from the commentary, but at least the scope is expanded beyond the greatness of Bronston. The creative decisions behind the film, such as the strange casting choice of Stephen Boyd, are handled with colorful anecdotes (as it turns out, Boyd fit into all of the costumes). Also, several historians touch on some of the cuts made to the movie, trimming down its already mammoth length of three hours plus. Some character moments were lost and a few scenes play as slightly obscure, though it also accounts for the brisk pace of the finished film. Some of the other documentaries are rush jobs: one is a 10-minute look at the historical fall of the Roman Empire, while another, touching on Hollywood revisionism versus historical accuracy, is more of a primer on old fashioned Hollywood screenwriting. As usual, the writers get screwed, and this potentially interesting doc is over before it’s even begun. The 20-minute featurette about composer Dmitri Tiomkin gets into the “ugly, guttural, forceful” sounds that the composer went for, going for “suffocation” instead of a traditional, lush and romantic sound, with individual themes for each hero.
On disc three is a collection of historic films about Ancient Rome, all of which were shot on the state-of-the-art sets of The Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s funny to learn that the minds behind Encyclopedia Brittanica were every bit as much a bunch of hustlers as the Hollywood producers they were dealing with. In exchange for saying that the historical accuracy of this feature film was endorsed by the encyclopedia, they got to use sets and costumes for their classroom films. The films themselves are as mundane and sleep-inducing as what you might remember from History 101.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man